College Before and After

by Stacey

Last Sunday the NY Times Magazine ran a series of articles about college. Getting in, paying for it, advice from the recently graduated, that kind of thing. I know I’ve ranted about this before, but why is this whole getting into college thing so freaking insane? Whenever I read about it, I want to hide under the bed with a blanket over my head.

In one article, called Tense Times at Bronxville High, a student named Win (actually his name is Winthrop Pearce Rutherford, which is explained by what I’m about to say) spent his life trying to get into Princeton University. His grandfather, his father, all of his uncles and great-uncles on his dad’s side all went to Princeton and all he wanted to do was to follow in their footsteps.

Clearly the dude had legacy. But he also had a perfect grade point average, was co-editor of the school newspaper, had SAT scores totaling 2,200 out of 2,400, was co-captain of the cross-country team and was a strong-enough German student that he regularly traveled to Hunter College in New York City to take a high-level class, the article says.

Cut to the chase: he didn’t get in. Huh? What more could they want? Oh, but wait! Win had a skeleton in his closet. Before attending Bronxville High, he was a student at St. Paul’s School, a fancy boarding school in New Hampshire. The article says he left the school because of a drinking incident.

Who knows if that was the reason he wasn’t accepted to Princeton. And no one really needs to cry for Win. He ended up getting accepted at the University of Virginia and from the sound of it, he will have the family funds to enjoy his college years free from financial worries.

But this story gives me the creeps. The thought that teenagers have to be these over-achieving, over-scheduled, perfect people is downright frightening. One misstep and your chances are ruined? Come on! That’s cruel.

After shuddering my way through that article, I turned to another one called Don’t Worry Be Students. The article describes a NY Times poll of a few thousand recent college graduates. The message from the post-college world is, it doesn’t matter so much where you go to school, because “college is great” and high school kids should really “chill out.”

Those surveyed said that the criteria they used to select schools ended up not being important to them once they got on campus.

The young alums acknowledge, in a variety of their responses, that the qualities they or their parents thought were crucial in choosing a college were not necessarily the things that mattered most once they got there. Magazine rankings and a school’s reputation — both extremely important in the minds of many applicants — are often of far less significance to graduates as they reflect on what made their college years worthwhile.

Instead, experiences with friends or extracurricular activities were the memories that stood out in their minds. Most said that the education they received was directly related to the work they found after graduation.

So why all this insanity? It seems fear driven, but I can’t put my finger on what exactly people are so afraid of. Any thoughts?

It also strikes me as kind of tragic. If Win with his perfect GPA, extracurriculars up the wazoo, and a legacy that beats G.W.’s can’t get into Princeton, that says to me that lots of other kids are going to be sorely disappointed in the spring. Is it worth it?

Pressed several months after his rejection to explain what was riding on his application to Princeton, Win himself couldn’t really put his finger on it. “I don’t even know what I wanted,” he says. “It was almost like this intangible thing. Getting into a good college — it’s like it was like some sort of a reward for lifetime service.” He struggles and starts again. “It was this built-up desire — part of it was for my family, but that was only part of it.” It didn’t have to be Princeton, he’d come to realize. Princeton just happened to be the school that became the fetish object. “That’s what you’re working so hard for — so you rationalize it.” If you’re working that hard for something your entire 18-year-old life, it can’t just be a good school — it has to be something bigger than that. “It’s like getting into college becomes the F. Scott Fitzgerald green light at the end of the dock, the unreachable future you’re striving for.”

Win grins, as usual, acknowledging the rarefied world he’s a part of, while simultaneously making fun of himself for it. Part of the anticlimax, he said, was the absence he suddenly felt of some other pressing goal (presumably what he’d have four years at U. Va. to figure out). “I’d worked it over so much in my brain,” Win says. “Now what?”

How ’bout just hanging out with your friends and being a kid for a little longer? You only get one chance at that and then lots of years to work and strive and stress out.

What do you all think? Can we start the backlash now so when my kids reach this stage (in fifteen years) all this craziness will be a thing of the past?

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Filed under depression, discipline, dreams, education, exhaustion, family, family life, fears, friends, kids, life, mental health, parenting, psychology, sports, teenager

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